John McAvoy’s story: ‘I broke world rowing records while in jail’

I was 26 years old and serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, with a minimum of five years. It was my second stint in prison and initially I was totally remorseless — even open to breaking out.

But that all changed when I learnt that my best mate from childhood had died in a high-speed police chase in Holland, where he’d been robbing banks. His death hit me like a ton of bricks. I recall looking up in my cell, realising I had spent my late teens and most of my twenties in jail. What had I ever achieved in my life, what did I have to show for it? Nothing. I’d only caused suffering and anguish for my mum. My outlook was completely altered from that precise moment. The problem was I had at least four years left to serve.

To spend less time rotting away in my cell, I used to go to the gym, and soon discovered that I had a gift for rowing. Perhaps because I was so focused on rebuilding my life, I found I was progressing much quicker than other inmates. My talent was spotted by Darren Davis, a PE instructor at the prison I was in — HMP Lowdham Grange in Nottinghamshire. Without my asking, he researched world records for indoor rowing, and I was confident that I could better them.

John McAvoy took up rowing after the death of a good friend changed his perspective (Charlie Bibby)

The training regime was very unstructured at the start. It was a case of simply sitting on the rowing machine and rowing lots of metres, and my body just adapted. Training got harder once I read some fitness books in the library. I hardly ate the prison food as it was like slop and tasted disgusting, so I lived off porridge, tuna and nuts, which I bought at the prison canteen.

In the end, I set three indoor world records (which have since been broken), and seven British records, from within the confines of that poky jail gym. My mum has all the various trophies on her mantelpiece. The first world best was a 24-hour rowing record that I set in 2009. I registered more than 163 miles on the rowing machine.

Darren was an incredible help and showed amazing faith in me. It was only down to him that I was afforded special dispensation to be out of my cell for so long for my 24-hour record attempt. Usually the guards would be reluctant to let you leave your cell at night even if you were dying, thinking you were up to something. But Darren agreed to come in and supervise me through the night on his day off. He ended up staying with me for the full 24 hours.

When I returned to my cell, physically shattered but a world-record holder, it was like something out of a movie. As I walked up I was applauded by most of the inmates. The respect I so craved as a criminal was being earned instead as a sportsman.

I was originally attracted to crime by those around me. My uncle Micky was involved in the infamous Brink’s-Mat heist in the 1980s.

I obtained my first firearm, a shotgun, at the age of 16. I had the links and I’d earned respect. But I was in HM Prison Belmarsh at 18 — in a special segregation unit because I was deemed too dangerous for a young offenders’ institution.

I’ve not seen or even spoken to my old friends and family with criminal ties since I chose to go straight. When I was finally released from prison two years ago, I moved to Putney to be near London Rowing Club. Serco, the company that runs HMP Lowdham Grange, still supports me with sponsorship. I regret not having had the opportunity to try out rowing, and lots of other things, when I was younger but I hope my experiences can influence others in a similar situation.

At over 30, I’m too old to develop into a world-class rower but I’ve now turned my attention to Ironman endurance racing, and am competing in the European championships next July, with the dream of ultimately becoming a professional sportsman.

This article was first published in The Financial Times Weekend Magazine in January 2016

Published by

Oliver Pickup

Multi-award-winning writer, content editor, ghostwriter, and TV and radio commentator (and occasional illustrator), specialising in technology, blockchain, startups, business, sport and culture. Founder of Pickup Media Limited. Interviewer of death row prisoners, legendary athletes, influential leaders, tech trendsetters, and cultural pioneers. By-lined in every English newspaper. Contributor to dozens of multinational publications.

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